How many people are homeless in Boulder County, metro Denver? 200 volunteers to gauge size of issue

Volunteer Gwynneth Johnson from Colorado Coalition for the Homeless packs up socks before heading out into the streets for the annual Point in Time survey on Monday evening, Jan. 29, 2018 in Denver. The survey collects data that is used to inform HUD and provide a snapshot of Metro Denver on a single night to help communities understand trends and respond to the needs of people experiencing literal homelessness. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

The man’s pillow was propped against a lamppost along West Colfax Avenue, where he settled in only inches from the pulsing headlights. A mostly full half-gallon of milk hung from his stroller, which held the rest of his blankets and clothes, and he munched on a bag of tortilla chips.

Elisabeth Francis crouched on the sidewalk in front of him, asking questions and tapping the answers into her smartphone. The man agreed to take the survey – the annual "point-in-time," seven-county canvass to gauge homelessness – only because he knows Francis. She is an outreach worker for St. Francis Center, a downtown homeless shelter, and Capitol Hill is her turf.

Nearly 200 volunteers, their backpacks loaded with socks, gloves and candy bars, walked the streets Monday night or went to shelters with clipboards and free Regional Transportation District passes to conduct the survey. They have 24 hours – from sundown Monday to sundown Tuesday – to count and sample the homeless population of Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Douglas and Jefferson counties.

Homeless survey

5,116
On Jan. 30, 2017, there were 5,116 homeless individuals counted in the Denver metro area.

924
18.1 percent (924 people) were unsheltered.

779
19.4 percent (779 people) were considered newly homeless. 507
12.6 percent (507 people) reported that domestic violence was a contributing factor to their homeless situation. 1,085
1,085 were living in chronically homeless households. 569
569 identified as veterans. 439
439 families completed surveys. 395
395 unaccompanied people under age 25 completed surveys

Last year’s survey counted 5,116 people, among them 924 spending the night in tents, parks, vehicles or underpasses. This year’s results are expected in June.

"It lets people know they matter," said Ian Fletcher, who is with the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, a nonprofit that recruits volunteers and helps coordinate the effort. The results of the survey, ongoing for 14 years, influence the amount of government and grant funding dispersed in the metro area for shelter, job training and treatment services for people who are homeless.

Dennis L. Bollig, 60, who lined up in a Denver Rescue Mission courtyard to catch a bus to a shelter, easily obliged, answering questions about where he sleeps, his health and how long he has been homeless. Bollig, wearing layers of hooded sweatshirts and gripping a cane, has slept in Rescue Mission shelters for about three years, ever since he "lost everything" due to a 16-week hospital stay because of a kidney infection.

He spends daytime hours at the library or St. Francis Center and buys his meals with his Denver County "old-age pension," a benefit for low-income people at least 60 years old. On Monday night, he was among about 400 men who lined up for two buses that make three trips each night to two shelters outside of downtown.

In three years, Bollig has slept outside only twice because he didn’t get on a list for a bed soon enough, including the time he stayed awake all night reading under a street lamp outside the St. Francis Center.

"It’s scary as hell," he said.

Volunteers looking for "unsheltered" people in Denver gathered Monday afternoon at Mile High United Way to meet their team leaders, outreach workers from St. Francis Center, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Urban Peak. Each team of four was assigned a zone – one set out with flashlights along the Platte River, another to Interstate 70 underpasses, and another to Civic Center park and the nearby Denver Public Library.

"Remember, we’re going into their homes and we need to keep that in mind," said a Coalition for the Homeless staffer whose group headed toward a van to begin a 5 to 10 p.m. shift. They were trained to greet people with "Hey, campers" and to say they’re taking "a survey or people who are sleeping outside tonight," instead of "a survey of homeless people."

Doug Filter and Sherri Kroonenberg, who work in financial services, have volunteered to feed the homeless, but this felt different. "In soup kitchens, they come to you," Filter said as his team loaded their packs with hygiene kits, snacks and socks. "This time we’re going to them."

Volunteer Megan Nyce, in jeans and rainbow-striped gloves, volunteered last year to count at a shelter, but this year she signed up for a team that roamed Capitol Hill on a night warm for January. Approaching people sleeping outside was "more intense," but she was there to "get a little bit of perspective on what it’s like," she said. "It’s an opportunity to talk to some of the people that I walk by everyday."

For Nyce’s team, one of the most intense parts of the night was surveying some of the two dozen people gathered near a statue at Colfax and Broadway. Some in the group were using heroin, their syringes and lighters scattered on the cement, their eyes bloodshot and glassy. One woman tripped, spilling her "points," or needles. Another woman, called A.J., cried. "I’m so desperate," she said, asking about housing. "I really need to get on the list."

A.J. took the survey at the library earlier in the day, she said, because the volunteers offered cookies, hand-warmers and beanies.

Archer Fox, 35, who took the survey from his wheelchair, was in the mood to chat and happy to provide information that might bring services. "That’s how systems get developed, and we find out resources that we need," he said.

The survey happens nationwide at the end of January. Data is sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Volunteers were visiting day centers, coffee shops and soup kitchens across the seven counties Tuesday, trying, as one volunteer described it, "to put a number on the problem."

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